A Huge Test for Ezra and Bronwen at Dean Farm
Regular readers of our blog will know that we parted with Carew earlier this month.
Carew's such a talented sheepdog that because we have so little work for her (especially in winter) we took the agonising decision to let her go to a large flock on Dartmoor in the South West of England.
Of course, we have other dogs here who can work sheep to a reasonable standard, but I was very much aware that we would soon be asked by our landlord to gather his flock for ultrasound pregnancy scanning at Dean Farm, and these sheep can be very challenging. (The ewes are scanned to ascertain how many lambs they're expecting).
We still have Kay, of course, and she's wonderful at gathering sheep and helping out on our sheepdog training courses, but as she gets older, she's beginning to get tired quite quickly, so I wanted to limit her to the more skilled work, while giving a less experienced dog a chance to learn how to control a flock.
Bronwen's been to Dean Farm before, but her experience is very limited.
It's one thing working a dog on a few training sheep in your field where it doesn't matter if things go wrong, but working with a flock with no room for failure's entirely different
Kay's never been at home working in a pen, but as she gets older, she's increasingly reluctant to get in amongst tightly-packed sheep, so when John called me and asked me to help with the scanning on Friday (yesterday) morning, I knew that either Bronwen or Ezra were probably going to have to take over from Carew when the time came to push the sheep through the race for the scanner.
I was right. After doing a splendid job of gathering the sheep from the first field, Kay didn't feel up to pushing the stubborn ewes over the bridge and down the drive, so I let Ezra out of the back of the car to help her.
As I explained in the blog the other day, Ezra is Carew's litter brother, but he and his sister are completely different, both in stature and temperament. From her first ever session with sheep, Carew showed excellent control and patience with sheep, whereas Ezra's far more agricultural in his approach.
Sheep are not as stupid as many people think, and one thing they're expert at, is judging the potential danger of a suspected predator. The moment Ezra jumped out of the 4x4, they immediately recognised his powerful 'presence' and disappeared over the bridge towards the farm!
Poor Ezra couldn't understand why I got him out of the car and immediately put him back in, but I didn't want to risk him chasing pregnant ewes down the drive. When you're working Ezra close to sheep, you need to keep an eye on him all the time but I needed to drive the 4x4 behind the sheep to the farm. It was too risky, so Ezra went back on board and Kay trotted quietly after the sheep, just to keep them all moving in the right direction.
Once we reached the farm, Kay did a marvellous job of pushing the sheep into the yard, but she clearly didn't relish the thought of working inside the crowded pen where dogs are vulnerable to attack from aggressive sheep. Neither Ezra nor Bronwen have had any real experience of pen work, but I thought Ezra might just be the easier to control, so I threaded my trusty lambing rope though his collar and took him in.
Ezra was clearly nervous at first (and who can blame him) but quite soon he began to relax and I felt I could control him, so I released him from the rope.
At first he darted at a sheep, but I'd been expecting it and quickly corrected him. He listened to me, so I knew he would probably be fine - and apart from frequently having to call him back as he tried to push the sheep too hard, he did an excellent job, weaving back and forth behind the sheep to keep them all up to the race.
On a handful of occasions various ewes challenged Ezra but without prompting, he nipped each of them on the nose. Just enough to show them he wasn't to be messed with. I was impressed by his restraint. Like Carew, he was using just enough force to get the work done without being heavy-mouthed.
Since we last worked at Dean Farm, for some reason, a door had been removed from what must have been a feed room or calf pen in the corner of the sorting yard, and sure enough, on inspection it proved to be crammed with sheep. It would be too much to expect any novice dog to go into that dark, sheep-packed hole and get them out cleanly, so I popped the rope through Ezra's collar again, and led him between the sheep and the wall to show him what was required. It clearly worked because when a number of sheep got back in there later on, I was able to give Ezra an "Away" command, and he brought them out cleanly.
Considering this was his first attempt at working in a pen, and that the sheep must be handled especially carefully because they are pregnant,Ezra performed extremely well. Most of the sheep had tremendous respect for him, and the odd few that didn't, quickly acquired one!
When we took the sheep back to the field though, his excitement got the better of him. He wasn't aggressive, and his driving was good, but for some reason he was reluctant to flank when the sheep went past the gate they were supposed to go through. We managed to get the work done eventually, but it was certainly not Ezra's best performance and while we struggled in the mud, knowing there were people back in the yard waiting for the next batch of sheep, I couldn't help wishing Carew was with us. She's in her element with this kind of work.
Ezra will improve as his experience and confidence grow, so overall, I'm really pleased with him.
The second bunch of sheep was much larger, and spread between three very wet fields. Because the work involved a lot of gathering, I took Kay as the main dog, with Bronwen as backup. The work went without incident, in fact Kay did such a good job there was very little for Bronwen to do, so I decided to use her for pushing the sheep through the race.
Just as with Ezra, Bronwen was nervous at first in the pen, but she improved as time went on. There wasn't much for her to do though. The second batch of sheep were much more familiar with the narrow sheep race, and happier to go through it.
The important point is that we got the job done without undue stress on the sheep, and the younger dogs will improve with experience and training. There will be very little work for the dogs until after lambing time (over three months away) so I was glad of this opportunity to test Ezra and Bronwen on flock and pen work. All things considered, I wasn't disappointed with either of them.